There's a moment in the South African writer Ivan Vladislavic's 2006 memoir Portrait With Keys in which he describes the arrival of a new black resident on Blenheim Street in the Kensington neighbourhood of Johannesburg. (Kensington is one of several scruffy, scrubby, low-rise suburbs that stretch east of the city's central business district.) It's the early 1990s, and the ethnic physiognomy of Kensington and neighbourhoods like it is changing as the country prepares for its first multi-racial, democratic elections in 1994. Vladislavic notices that the new arrivals at No. 10 Blenheim Street have employed a woman to "paint a Ndebele design on their garden wall". Later, when the mural is finished, he wishes he'd documented its composition:
It would have made a wonderful photographic essay ... That intricate pattern, vibrant and complex as stained glass ... spreading out, segment by segment over a blank white wall. What a metaphor for the social transformation we were living through.
Using photography to document the "social transformation" that South Africa, and its largest city in particular, continues to undergo is one of the aims of a major exhibition that will open at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in April. "Figures and Fictions", co-curated by the art historian Tamar Garb and the V&A's Martin Barnes, will present work by 17 photographers (from established names such as David Goldblatt and Pieter Hugo to newcomers like Zanele Muholi and Sabelo Mlangeni) that responds in different ways to what Garb sees as the country's "powerful rethinking of issues of identity across race, gender, class and politics".
Several of the photographers are especially interested in recording the impressions that these convulsive changes have left on the urban fabric of Johannesburg. Sabelo Mlangeni, for instance, records the lives of the residents of a men-only workers' hostel in the city in a series of images entitled "Men Only". I spent five days in Johannesburg last week, during which I met Mlangeni and accompanied him on a walking tour of the city's downtown, an area abandoned in some haste by white businesses in the mid-1990s, after the collapse of apartheid. Many of the office buildings those businesses left behind (forsaking them for the secure compounds of the northern suburbs), most of them dangerous and insanitary, have been turned into homes, mainly by black migrants - from both rural South Africa (Mlangeni himself was born and raised in the eastern province of Mpumalanga, near the border with Swaziland) and elsewhere on the continent. These people aren't squatters, however; they pay rent for their tiny rooms, often to criminal landlords (a phenomenon portrayed in Ralph Ziman's 2008 film Jerusalema and Rehad Desai's documentary The Battle for Johannesburg).
Mlangeni showed us the building he'd lived in when he first arrived in Joburg several years ago. A flyblown, four-storey block in which children raced up and down the stairwells and shouted at us from broken windows. He also took us to the Wolhuter Men's Hostel in Jeppestown, similar to the one he photographed in "Men Only" and only a couple of miles, in fact, from Ivan Vladislavic's home in Kensington. The residents here are all Zulus, from the province of KwaZulu-Natal. Judging by the number of young men thronging the hostel's filthy courtyard, few of them have succeeded in finding work - the reason they came to Joburg in the first place. Unemployment in South Africa in the last quarter of 2010 stood at 25.3 per cent (and the figure is higher for black South Africans). This is a reminder that, as Tamar Garb puts it, "the advent of democracy [in South Africa] ... has not been enough to counter the social and political hardships of people, both citizens and foreigners, and that the safeguarding of the rights and livelihoods of all its inhabitants ... remains an ongoing struggle and challenge".
Sabelo Mlangeni lived in this decrepit block when he first arrived in Johannesburg.
Sabelo Mlangeni, Johannesburg, 17 January 2010.
Children in the block across the street. Below, the Wolhuter Men's Hostel in Jeppestown, Johannesburg. (Photographs by Jonathan Derbyshire)